I don’t know how I ended up here. The girl who had once dreamt of climbing the corporate ladder now stood on a cheap blue footstool wearing a cream apron reaching for the top shelf in the pantry.
The empty nail in the wall near the door seemed to mock me — the perfect place to hang that degree.
Really? How did I end up here?
I looked around the small kitchen. The brown marble floor had been artfully covered in white flour to match the once-white tiles and kitchen cabinets. It’s a place I thought I’d eventually enter in the future but that future was always supposed to be distant. Not now. Never the present.
The kitchen was never a sacred place for me. It didn’t smell of cookie dough and vanilla and wasn’t inviting. This tiny room was the place from which food appeared and into which dirty dishes disappeared only to magically reappear with more food five hours later. It also emanated an aura of hard work and responsibility, something that’s a natural repellant for me. Occasionally hunger would force our skinny mouse-like frames to wander in, searching for something to nibble on till the next meal.
And yet, here I was, searching for the key ingredients to a perfect roast chicken.
Amma had played her role as the daunting, traditional mother who brings up her daughter to compete with other ‘can-make-perfectly-round-chappati’ girls rather well. A few dramatic zoom-in shots, and the saas role on a Star Plus drama would have been hers. Life became a battle. It was Business School vs Perfect Chappatis.
She would occasionally remind me that I could not feed my children books for lunch and so my grades and degree were useless — the last thing I wanted to think about a day before a big presentation.
Besides I could always train them to live on paper. It’s called conditional learning, I think, and if it can work with Pavlov’s dogs, four-year-olds should be easier to teach. Besides, bark comes from trees so they’ll just be vegetarians in a way. Which is good for the planet, apparently.
Anyway, back to the kitchen. Movies like Julie and Julia and Ratatouille planted this crazy notion in my gullible mind that ‘anyone can be a cook.’ Somewhere In the world Joël Robuchon just snorted into his pâté. Turns out, both movies and nature had played a cruel joke on me and culinary art wasn’t in my genes. It became a great source of shame given that my community prides itself on good food and overly expensive 2 am weddings, but that’s an entirely different story. As it turned out, activating salivary glands with my cooking was something of a challenge. As for the puke reflex, that was easily triggered.
But practice makes perfect right? And with this hope, I sat down to plot my learning curve to see where I was headed. Here’s what it looked like:
And they say ‘data never lies’. How do you explain this?
It began with instant soup. Yes, apparently it is possible to mess up instant soup but, in my defence, it was fine if you gulped it down real fast. Also, I might have messed up the French fries, but that could have happened to anyone. And maybe the Kharay masalay ka qeema was a little undercooked but how was I supposed to know.
I blame Amma’s method of measurement. She would occasionally find this urge to teach me how to cook as a consequence of some ‘unsughar’ thing that I had done. The session in the kitchen included vague instructions like ‘woh thora sa’, ‘ thori dair chamcha chalao’, ‘thora aur’ and ‘andaze se dalo’. Meanwhile I stood there, marvelling at how the amount of ‘thora’ varied from ingredient to ingredient. Fortunately, this wouldn’t last long. She would eventually get annoyed at my questions, and I had to stand and watch a time-rushed Amma make biryani.
Eventually, we hired a miracle worker. A Bengali chef. The alluring aroma of her curry had the power to make us run to the dining table as if in a trance. It was like watching a snake charmer charm a venomous snake, and so I was to be anointed as her disciple. It was then that the kitchen became a battle ground. One Saturday we set out on a voyage to fry Moby Dick. Okay, much smaller and more like something Moby Dick spat out.However, it wasn’t long before mutiny arose. As we fought, the fish started to rot and had to be eventually tossed back into the ocean of the dustbin. The bloodless battle continued for days, and just when I thought my food looked edible, she left. But not before handing Amma my evaluation. “It’s a miracle your daughter can boil water” was perhaps the kindest remark out of a long list.
Well, those that can’t do, teach. And since giving unwanted advice is a national sport, I feel it is my civic duty to offer advice on a subject I know nothing of without anyone asking me to.
1. If you can’t cook, don’t lie. It will cost you.
2. If you can cook, lie. Otherwise it will cost you even more.
3. Before serving a meal, leave your ego in the kitchen.
4. After serving, remember:
‘I poisoned it’ will not make the critics any less critical. Instead, ‘I doubt only poison could make it taste this bad’ will follow.
5. Once in a while, you will need an ego boost. So serve a really small quantity and serve it 2 hours late, while ensuring that your critics have not had any other edible items. This way even if they don’t appreciate your cooking, their empty plates will speak otherwise.
6. Ramazan is God’s gift. Make the most of it and start experimenting. It’s the best time to avoid an “Oh my God! Did you even taste this before serving?”
7. Buy a cat. A stray one will do perfectly. The upside: you just might find someone who appreciates your cooking while saving on cat food. However, a guilty conscience after its burial might be a risk you’ll have to take.
8. There is nothing lady-like about ladyfingers.
9. Cheese can make anything taste good.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 6th, 2011.